Remembering Reed

Brian Haywood, Rants Editor

Earlier last month, the world of music was rocked with the unexpected passing of a truly powerful figure; not just an innovator, or a really good musician, but someone with influence and impact far more important than that. Lewis Alan Reed, 71, inspired nearly everyone who heard his music in some way or another; it has been said that while his band The Velvet Underground’s first album didn’t sell more than 30,000 copies, everyone who listened to it started a band.

Lewis Allan “Lou” Reed was born in Brooklyn in 1942. Reed worked with the poet Delmore Schwartz during his studies at Syracuse University, fostering his interest in writing and music. He meandered after college, picking up a job as a staff songwriter for Pickwick Records, a novelty label. Reed befriended Welsh musician John Cale, a classically trained violist who had performed with minimalist composer La Monte Young. Reed and Cale formed a band called the Primitives, then changed their name to the Warlocks. After meeting guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker, they became the Velvet Underground. The band caught the attention of Andy Warhol, who incorporated the Velvets into his “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” short movie. With this platform, they begin to attract people’s attention all over the place.

It’s not that his music is some sort of grandiose, complex thing; quite the opposite. The songs, some of them popular hits, such as his best known single “Take a Walk on the Wilds Side,” are instantly recognizable by their personality and texture. It seems like a human being made the music, rather than someone with the help of five men in another room with knobs and electronic equipment, fine-tuning every last detail. Of course if we’re being realistic, there probably were five men in another room with knobs and electronic equipment doing just that, but at least they did it transparently. Lou’s music was strikingly imperfect; his vocal and guitar-playing style of a rough, heat-of-the-moment variety. The records pick up all the crackles and hiccups that come with performing, and leave them where they are. A young person with back-door ambitions of becoming a songwriter can listen to these works and think “Oh, I can tell exactly what he’s doing here. I can do this too.” Rock music, becoming marketed as cleaner, slicker, and nicer than ever before, got a kick in the ribs by Lou Reed, and justly, it was put in its place. It’s not a pi in the sky performance art; it’s expression.

It’s a pretty straightforward and easy thing to say that without Lou Reed, we would not have half the music that we have today. Entire genres and sub-genres all stemmed from the work of a single man. We have glam rock, experimental rock, and modern rock like The Strokes; in fact, lead singer Julian Casablancas has cited The Velvet Underground as his primary source of inspiration, saying on Twitter “Lou Reed is the reason I do everything I do.” His story is a common one. There’s no way to really know how many people were influenced by what Lou did; we can only look at what we have today, and be glad for it.

“All through this, I’ve always thought that if you thought of all of it as a book then you have the Great American Novel, every record as a chapter,” Casablancas told Rolling Stone in 1987. “They’re all in chronological order. You take the whole thing, stack it and listen to it in order, there’s my Great American Novel.”